A Northwest Washington furrier said yesterday that he told a federal grand jury that an aide to D.C. Mayor Marion Barry paid part of a fur bill for the mayor's wife Effi, but that his store records did not show whether the money came from a city account.
Chris N. Fotos, the owner of Le Parisien furs on Connecticut Avenue, said he was paid by Robert Robinson, who handled the mayor's expense accounts, either in cash or with checks made out to cash, after he complained to the mayor's office that he had received no payments for 1 1/2 years.
Robinson "led me to believe he was in charge of paying the mayor's bills," Fotos said. "Where he got the money from, I don't know."
A federal grand jury is investigating whether the fur bill and other personal expenses of the mayor or his wife were paid out of the mayor's $17,500 annual ceremonial fund -- an allegation that Barry denies. The inquiry is part of a wide-ranging federal probe into allegations of D.C. government corruption that also focuses on the awarding of numerous contracts and on allegations that hush money was paid to Karen K. Johnson, with whom the mayor had a personal relationship.
Besides Fotos, the grand jury has questioned about a dozen former or current city officials about the ceremonial fund. Sources said yesterday that Robinson, who resigned his city hall post this summer and has steadfastly declined to comment, also has testified before the grand jury.
Robinson played a key role in several previous controversies involving D.C. government spending. He was named but not charged in a criminal case involving former deputy mayor Ivanhoe Donaldson. Prosecutors alleged that Robinson approved and wrote two government checks totaling $63,500 that Donaldson later converted to his personal use.
Last year, Barry publicly blamed Robinson for failing to keep proper records of thousands of dollars of the mayor's travel expenses.
In interviews late Wednesday night and yesterday afternoon, Barry insisted that no city funds were used with his knowledge to pay for the fur coat. He gave the following account of payments:
Barry said he and his wife together chose the $4,500 jacket of gray Japanese fox, called "tanuki," in November 1982. He gave the store a $500 personal check, with an agreement to pay the balance over about three years.
Barry said he sent another personal check for $1,333 in March 1983, and made subsequent payments in cash or by cashier's checks.
He said he stopped making payments sometime later when Effi Barry complained about bare spots in the elbows of the jacket.
Barry said the bill remained unpaid for a period of time because his wife and Fotos could not agree on repairing the coat. He said during the interim, Robinson made a $1,500 payment to the furrier without his knowledge.
The mayor said he discovered the payment from Robinson in the spring of 1986, when he and his wife worked out an agreement with the furrier under which the coat would be repaired and they would pay the remainder of the bill.
When he received the bill, Barry said, he noticed it was $1,500 less than he expected. He said Fotos then informed him of the payment from Robinson.
The mayor said Robinson told him he used his personal savings account to make the $1,500 payment because the furrier was threatening to sue.
Barry said he then promptly repaid Robinson with two cash payments of $500 and $1,000 after chastising him for interfering with his private affairs.
Barry said that in November or December 1986, he sent an aide to the store to make a final payment to the furrier of about $1,200, either in cash or with a cashier's check, while he waited in a car on the street.
Barry said he made the payments in cash because he occasionally carries large amounts of cash, but that in hindsight it may have been better to have obtained some records of the transactions.
The mayor said Robinson, who wrote a number of checks to cash from the ceremonial fund, may have obtained the money to pay Fotos from that account. But, Barry said, "If Rob did something wrong, it was without my knowledge . . . . I assume when people tell me something, they are telling me the truth.
"He got into my business and I told him he shouldn't have been in it. I guess he thought he was protecting me," Barry added. "When I heard about it I went totally off . . . . Rob did all kind of crazy things."
Effi Barry declined yesterday to return telephone calls to her office. An aide said she would not comment on the fur coat bill.
Fotos said he began complaining to the mayor's office after he had not received any payments for a number of months and was unable to reach either the mayor or his wife.
After numerous calls, he said, secretaries referred him to Robinson, who promised to take care of the bill. At that point, Fotos said, the bill amounted to about $2,500.
Fotos said he received the money in a series of payments, but was not sure whether they came in the mail or were made in person.
He said he could not review his records because he gave them to the grand jury after he received a subpoena.
He also said his wife, who keeps the store's books, told FBI agents during an interview that she could not recall exactly how the payments were made and did not know whether city funds were used.
The fur coat bill marks the second public controversy over purchases of clothes for Effi Barry. The Washington Post reported last fall that in 1982, Effi Barry charged $1,150 worth of designer clothes to David Wilmot, a local lawyer.
At that time, Wilmot was a paid city lobbyist for the Hotel Association of the District of Columbia and was under contract to advise the Washington Convention Center, a semi-independent city agency.
Effi Barry and Wilmot both said the leather jacket, blouse, leather pants and boots were a birthday present and not in any sense a bribe.
The Barrys said they were unaware that Wilmot was a paid lobbyist at the time and felt that he betrayed their trust by not telling them. Staff writer Tom Sherwood contributed to this report.